Okay, so where were we? Oh yes, my problem with prayer. Let’s go back to the women’s bible study retreat story. After the humiliating paperback bible incident, there was a break for social hour and, thanks be to God, coffee. I knew two or three of the women fairly well, as their husbands and mine were in the same unit. I joined their little circle, which included a few women I didn’t know—a fine opportunity to make some new friends.
I politely listened to the ongoing conversation for a bit before introducing myself. What I heard was disturbing. Apparently, at the last minute, a regular member of the group was unable to attend the retreat. I thought, Hmmmmm, hence my last-minute invitation? One of the women said, “Her husband, that jerk, just left her— leaving her with three small children.” We sadly shook our heads with concern.
Another offered, “She has two months to get out of housing, can you imagine?” More tsk-tsking and sympathy in absentia for the poor woman. Then another chimed in, “Let’s pray for her.”
We all joined hands, the circle of five of us attracting the attention of the other little groups. Slowly, they put down their coffee cups and joined our prayer circle. “Dear Lord, lift up poor Amy* as she struggles with terrible loss, help her find a new home…”
The morning bled into afternoon, with readings and chatter about children, shopping, and all the normal things woman chat about. But mostly, they shared stories about their neighbor’s hysterectomy, the poor child with ADD down the street, the drinking problem of the company commander—and always, always these revelations were followed by “I pray for them.”
Comedian Aaron Wilburn does a bit on Southerners. Using a perfect, genteel drawl, he makes comments like, “Suzy has gained a bit of weight, bless her heart.” I’m paraphrasing here, but he goes on and on, with each example growing more vicious: “Ermine is a total b****, bless her heart.” His point is, that in that culture, you can get away with saying anything about anybody, as long as you follow it with “Bless her heart.”
It seems the same thing is true about these types of prayers offered up for people experiencing difficulties. What amounts to nothing more than hurtful gossiping is somehow seen as acceptable, even laudable, if a ‘prayer’ is tacked onto it. Partly due to my training as a health care professional, and partly due to my upbringing, I believe that gossiping is wrong. Sure, everyone does it—it is difficult to resist re-telling a juicy tidbit, but that doesn’t make it right. It is hurtful to the parties being talked about, and it goes against the golden rule.
Here’s another reason it seems wrong. There is a wonderful German phrase--schadenfreud--which, according to Bing Dictionary, means “gloating at somebody else's bad luck: malicious or smug pleasure taken in somebody else's misfortune.” If someone is having difficulty, the right thing to do is to go directly to that person and offer whatever assistance you are able. Then—and this is important—shut your mouth.
Gossip disguised as prayer is a large reason why I recently abandoned organized religion. It was not a common practice in the Catholic churches I attended, but rampant in the Protestant. Why, I wondered. I’m thinking that while the Catholic Church may use guilt and fear of eternal damnation to keep the people coming, the Protestants may use the lure of gossip. Now I realize this doesn’t apply to everybody who attends and may be only a small part of why others do. But can you deny its truth?
Okay, I’ve stepped on lots and lots of toes. Commence the stone throwing now.
*The name and situation has been changed, of course.
©2014 Tracey Enerson Wood. All rights reserved.